Iceland, often described as the land of fire and ice, is truly magical, unforgettable and unpredictable. Talk about extremes, this country will leave you more mind boggled than you can ever imagine. I would consider the winter self drive experience one of the most extreme (and crazy) adventures I have ever embarked on. If you are planning for a winter drive in the northern hemisphere, read on to see what you are in for.
Always check the road conditions
The weather in Iceland changes faster than a chameleon changes its colour. Sudden impassable roads, countersteering 40m/s winds to 5m/s, poor visibility to bright blue skies, amazing. It is imperative to check the road conditions and plan well before you set off at any point, for your own safety and to avoid any disruptions in your travel plans. See a list of very handy websites below.
Route of advancement
It can’t get any simpler. There is only one main road, aka Route 1 or the Ring Road, which connects the whole of Iceland. Most of the major attractions are along the main road, if not a slight detour away.
I: Reykjavík to D: Vik (approx 300km / 4hrs)
Enjoy the stress free drive while you can. Roads are relatively wide, well path and sufficiently lit as this stretch, also known as the Golden Circle, is highly commercialized and concentrated with most of the island’s popular tourist attractions such as the Þingvellir National Park (B), Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir geyser (C). Roads become more remote as you head away from the city, but that’s also when all the fun begins!
D: Vik to E: Höfn (approx 270km / 3hrs)
If you enjoy driving, you will absolutely love the scenic stretch along the south coast. We were lucky to have good weather, and it felt almost as though we were on top gear, testing a supercar, roof down, burning desire to floor the engine as we zipped along the bends of absolutely remote and endless roads whilst taking in the mystical landscape of mountains, waterfalls, icelandic sheeps and horses, nature in all shapes, colours and form. It was truely a moment.
Look out for the all famous unpronounceable and extremely majestic volcano that led to international airspace chaos. Nested so innocently on the luscious green meadows against the clear blue skies with Mýrdalsjökull ice caps in the backdrop, you will be compelled to stop even if you didn’t realize it was Eyjafjallajökull.
E: Höfn to F: Egilsstaðir (approx 185km / 3hrs)
The East Fjords is the turning point of intensity – transit from the green lowlands into the darkside of a largely infertile terrain of highland moors and coastal gravel deserts. There are lots of intricate roads and converging lanes, especially the river crossings, so do make it a point to decipher all the new road signs that come your way.
Who would have thought that landscape could change so drastically. Apart from the icelandic sheeps and horses, the greens became gravel, blue skies became grey, roads became more icy, very narrow and extremely bendy as we entered deeper into the Eastern zone. It was certainly intimidating to drive through the towering mountains and scary to drive for miles without passing any cars…
Driving soon became absolutely nerve wreaking as we had zero experience with such extreme road conditions. Sweaty palms, thumping hearts, you name it, we had it. Stay very focus to remain on track to avoid an overturn (apparently quite common, and we personally witnessed one along the way). It almost felt as though we were on a James Bond adventure.
Here’s a short clip of the evil roads conditions
Here’s another clip of the road conditions while crossing the mountains and how erratic the weather can be, plus, what it feels like to cross paths with another vehicle!
G: Mývatn to H: Varmahlíð (approx 200km / 2.5hrs)
I am not sure how fear and desire can co-exist. We feared the weather and the road conditions, yet we desired to explore more. The beauty of the west region is just nature in its rawest form. There is just something magical about Iceland that keeps you so passionate.
Driving remained stressful. In addition to the mountainous drive and wind shear factor, snow was excessive and more roads became completely impassable as the day progressed. Nevertheless, the landscape remained ever so breathtaking. Despite the frostbites, I had to get down to take a picture!
H: Varmahlíð to I: Reykjavík (approx 300km / 3.5hrs)
The blizzard was catching up with us from the East. Driving conditions remain tough and we made sure to set out even earlier for our last leg and skipped all the attractions along the way. Our objective was simple. We wanted to get back to Reykjavík in one piece, and before the sun sets.
Finally, normal roads - road conditions that the layman are more familiar with. It kinda felt like we were back from outter space. Travel in style through the impressive state of art tunnel that runs below sea level to cross back to Reykjavík.
Near death experience
Like what most travellers experience, we got stuck. Our tires got trapped in the thick and fresh snow while climbing midway up an extremely narrow and bendy 45 degree mountainous track on the way to Egilsstaðir. It was a very frightening near death experience – there was no soul in sight within miles, no street lamps in place, and darkness was falling. Our minds went seriously wild – survival instincts kicked in – blankets? Water?? Wild boars???
Remember the emergency hotline 112
Our only saving grace was reception. We dialled the Icelandic emergency line 112 to seek rescue, and until this day, we remain grateful to the local volunteers of 112 who gallantly made their way to us so quickly. These good samaritans are extremely skilled people who help purely out of a kind heart in their free time and do not get paid or expect anything in return. They back tracked our drive and dropped us at a safety point where they then re-programmed our GPS for a safer alternate route to Egilsstaðir. Please avoid driving at night if you can. This is the detour that we took, and it was absolutely horrifying – we had no idea what was beyond the side skirts. Yes, ignorance is bliss.
The best way to enjoy Iceland is definitely by self driving around the island. It gives you the flexibility to indulge in the picturesque and evolving landscape and to uncover the hidden gems in the vast and remote lands beyond Reykjavík. Be marvelled at how the landscape changes within every few hours of drive. But beware, and be prepared, that driving by itself can be an extreme adventure, particularly during winter, and more so for those who are unfamiliar with rough winter road conditions. It is extremely vital, and for your own safety, that you rent a 4X4 should you intend to drive during Winter. I recommend at least 7 days for a comfortable drive around the island. Once completed, buy yourself a memorabilia that states “I survived Iceland”. Most importantly, please donate generously if you come across any 112 fund raisers.
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